Onetime GOP Star No Longer Shines

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't supposed to end this way for Rich Sybert.

A handsome Harvard Law School graduate and former top aide to Gov. Pete Wilson, Sybert was once considered one of the GOP's promising young stars.

But after three consecutive defeats--two hard-fought congressional contests, then a state Assembly primary last week in which he was trounced by 28-year-old legislative aide Tony Strickland--Sybert says he is through with politics.

If so, the onetime focus of glowing CNN profiles ended his political career in a less flattering light when he was caught on videotape defacing his opponent's campaign placards.

"I got into it in the first place because I cared deeply about a lot of the issues and had a lot to offer," said Sybert, a 46-year-old toy company executive who spent more than $750,000 of his own money trying to win public office. "I don't think I was prepared for the brutality of the political process. When I look back over the last six years, it's been nothing but heartache for me and my family."

For some of his former opponents, however, Sybert's suggestion that he was caught off guard by the rough-and-tumble nature of politics reeks of hypocrisy.

"Rich Sybert understood all of this very well," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who bested Sybert in 1996 in the 24th Congressional District, which includes portions of the Conejo and San Fernando valleys. "Rich Sybert was never illusioned. He's certainly run campaigns that included their share of negative elements."

Described by supporters and detractors alike as an intensely intelligent and driven individual, Sybert put himself through Berkeley and Harvard, and rose up the ranks of a Los Angeles law firm--only to leave it behind for a life in politics.

"I'm a little frustrated by what I'm doing now, lawyering away in a big firm while trying to satisfy my desire for something more," Sybert wrote in a successful 1984 application for a White House fellowship.

Quitting the law firm in 1990 to take a job heading Wilson's Office of Planning and Research, Sybert spent several years in the highest levels of state government--befriending important political types, but also ruffling the feathers of many of his colleagues with his hard-driving approach.

In 1993, Sybert moved from Pasadena to Calabasas and quickly declared his candidacy for the 24th District, dismissing charges of carpetbagging.

Losing to Anthony Beilenson by just 3,536 votes in the 1994 election, Sybert proceeded to sue the longtime incumbent for allegedly besmirching his reputation in a campaign mailer. The mailer attacked Sybert for collecting $140,000 a year in private legal fees while holding a $98,000-a-year job on Wilson's staff.

A month after Sybert settled the suit with Beilenson, the 2nd District Court of Appeal issued an opinion ridiculing the case.

"Hyperbole, distortion, invective and tirades are as much a part of American politics as kissing babies and distributing bumper stickers and potholders," Judge Arthur Gilbert wrote in the opinion.

When Beilenson opted not to seek reelection, many politicos assumed Sybert would win the 24th District seat.

"He's a Republican's dream opponent: a tax collector," Sybert joked to a Times reporter when discussing Sherman, then a State Board of Equalization member.

But Sybert wound up losing the race--by a much larger margin than in 1994. He blamed Bob Dole for conceding to Bill Clinton too early, keeping local Republicans at home.

Political observers, however, pointed out that Sherman had cleverly capitalized on a gaffe Sybert made: putting out brochures urging voters to "Join Gen. Colin Powell" in supporting his candidacy, without having Powell's formal endorsement. Powell later sent Sybert an encouraging note and $250, but never offered his endorsement.

"I just don't know why he felt the need to do that," said a former Sybert supporter, who requested anonymity. "He had so many other endorsements. Those are the kind of mistakes that Sybert made. They made no sense."

Last year, Sybert decided to pack his bags again and move to Thousand Oaks, a GOP-rich area that had supported him in both elections. Once again he faced charges of carpetbagging from home-grown Republicans.

But this time, Sybert had his sights on a less lofty perch: the 37th Assembly District seat about to be vacated by Nao Takasugi (R-Oxnard) because of term limits.

Right away, he faced adversity: His campaign manager from the 1996 congressional race, John Theiss, penned a letter to former Sybert supporters urging them to back Strickland, a conservative young aide to Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Northridge) in the primary.

The reason: Sybert would be perceived as a "desperate" politician who would do whatever necessary to get elected, Theiss argued.

But it was the carefully conceived one-two punch by the Strickland campaign earlier this year that may have dealt Sybert his final blows.

Strickland notified the press in April that a 19-year-old volunteer from Pepperdine University had witnessed Sybert tearing down Strickland placards in Thousand Oaks. Sybert immediately ridiculed the charges in a Times interview, saying, "I checked with my wife, and she's pretty sure the guy next to her Monday night was me."

The next day, Strickland released the video: Sybert scurrying in the darkness, ripping down several signs on different nights in Camarillo and Thousand Oaks. Sybert quickly admitted he had lied, and said he was "embarrassed and ashamed" of what he had done.

Sybert spent the last weeks of his campaign seeking to draw attention away from the sign incidents and toward the young age of Strickland, his main challenger. He succeeded for the most part in keeping his biggest endorsements, including that of Takasugi. But despite outspending his four primary opponents--putting more than $150,000 of his own money into the race--Sybert suffered a crushing defeat Tuesday, receiving just 7% of the vote.

Though he refused to throw his weight behind Strickland, calling him a right-wing extremist who "can't put two sentences together," he acknowledged that his own actions may have cost him.

"I'm a human being, and it's impossible to not say, 'could've, should've, would've,' " he added. "I've asked myself that question so many times.

"I don't know any human being who has led a blameless life. Yesterday's gone."

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